By Colleen Sparks
Going back to school can be an exciting time to shop for new clothes, backpacks and supplies but many families in North Central and around the Valley are not able to provide those items to their children as they struggle financially.
Luckily for them, the Assistance League of Phoenix, a North Central non-profit organization, provides clothes, underwear, shoes, socks, hygiene kits, books and other supplies to kids living in poverty. Through its innovative Operation School Bell program, kids in kindergarten through eighth grade board luxurious “Delivering Dreams” buses driven to their schools to pick out their clothes and other items with loving assistance from volunteers. The program helps about 8,500 children a year in the Valley.
“For a lot of kids that we serve they’ve never tried on clothes,” said Aimee Runyon, CEO of the Assistance League of Phoenix. “It just makes them feel special. This is the first time they know what it’s like to have a community wrap their arms around you.”
Often the children who receive the donations have only worn hand-me-down clothes previously and are wearing shoes that are two sizes too small. The children receive three tops and two bottoms, which can include pants, skirts and shorts, as well as a sweatshirt, socks, underwear, a belt, shoes and a hygiene kit with deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrushes and other supplies. Kids also receive a book of their choice.
The buses are set up like department stores with dressing rooms and areas to try on shoes. These vehicles bear the colorful logos of their sponsors – Arizona Diamondbacks, Fiesta Bowl Charities/BHHS Legacy Foundation and BHHS Legacy Foundation/Phoenix Rotary 100. In 2012 a grant from the Arizona Diamondbacks allowed the non-profit organization to start the program.
The buses visit several North Central schools in the Osborn Elementary and Washington Elementary school districts. They also help students at Imagine Schools Camelback.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Operation School Bell added safety measures that follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended guidelines including putting hand sanitizer in the buses. Runyon said the need is great as many families have lost jobs and been displaced.
Stephanie Chastain, a member of the Assistance League of Phoenix, has been volunteering for 13 years with the non-profit and serving kids on the bus is her favorite project.
“They’re all so sweet, they’re so appreciative,” Chastain said. “We’ve had tons of people that we dress that are now adults talk about what it meant to them to have nice, clean clothes.”
The Assistance League of Phoenix also offers the Wee Help program, where layette gift bags with receiving blankets, clothes, diapers, disposable wipes and other supplies are given to struggling, new parents.
Children receive new books, thanks to the support of many partner organizations, businesses and churches, through the Book Gifts Program. This program’s first priority is to serve whole grade levels of students in Title 1 schools, which have high percentages of students whose families qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. About 20,000 children a year receive the new books.
Children who are in crisis receive something warm and fuzzy – a teddy bear – through Assistance League of Phoenix’s HUGS program. Through a partnership with the Phoenix Fire Department, it provides teddy bears to comfort children when they have lost a family member, lived through a home fire, illness and other emergencies.
Runyon said the HUGS program is close to her heart as her cousin, who lived in Sunnyslope, died about seven years ago, leaving a 7-year-old child behind, who received one of the teddy bears.
The Assistance League of Phoenix can always use volunteers. If you want to find out about volunteer opportunities, contact Michelle Peralta, volunteer program manager, at email@example.com. To learn more about the Assistance League of Phoenix, visit www.alphx.org.